Op-ed Spotlight: We Need to Acknowledge Fear in Sports

ESPN's Howard Bryant breaks down a taboo

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Sports are dangerous. Football players risk brain damage from years of head-on collisions--to the point that Congress has tried to intervene, as covered by the Wire here, here, and here. Boxers and extreme-sports athletes regularly tempt death. Yet despite the risks, many athletes rarely admit to feeling fear.

The Georgian luger's death at the Winter Olympics was, to some athletes, a wake-up call. In the aftermath, other lugers and bobsledders in Vancouver owned up to the terror they feel before their runs. These rare admissions prompted an insightful column by ESPN's Howard Bryant, who explores the reasons for athletes' culture of machismo and explains the necessity of making fear less taboo in sports.

How Death Forces Athletes to Confront Fear

Death has a way of making things serious, and following the death of 21-year old Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili during a practice run hours before opening ceremonies, the vaunted speed of the Whistler track is suddenly no longer a virtue, nor is the decision by the Canadians to withhold use of the lightning-fast track seen as mere gamesmanship to gain a competitive edge. Now, that decision looks negligent, the fast-faster-fastest credo soberly discredited.

The Obvious Reason Why Athletes Don't Acknowledge Fear

It is difficult to simultaneously excel while being afraid. Most top athletes have, to an extent, conquered fear long before reaching the top of a profession. Learning to not be afraid of the ball is something you learn in Little League. Learning to rely on technique and ability is something lugers learn before puberty.

The 'Real' Reason

But as sports get more physical and more difficult, the dangers more obvious, the real reason no one talks about fear is because no one wants to lose face. In a sports world of machismo and muscles, fear is for sissies, for the noncommitted, for the weak. And toughness-attacking ridicule is soon to follow.

The Upside of Fear

Maybe, in an odd sort of way, we need more fear -- or at least the ability to acknowledge it -- in sports. Perhaps it would create real discussion in the National Football League, a sport that has always been physical but is reaching dangerous levels because the heightened levels of speed and power and technology have combined to turn men into human projectiles.

Bryant's Call to Action

A message is being sent by the athletes. If no one at the IOC listens, the result will be another human error, this time committed by the people wearing the suits.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.